FOR CENTURIES, Louisiana fishermen thrived off the bounty found in the extremely fertile coastal waters nourished by the Mississippi, Atchafalaya and other rivers.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Louisiana produces more than 76 percent of all seafood coming from the Gulf of Mexico and 34 percent of the total from the contiguous United States, landings worth about $2.5 billion annually. Shrimp typically account for more than 60 percent of Louisiana seafood harvests.
Consistently leading the nation, Louisiana shrimpers traditionally catch 45 percent of the Gulf landings and 29 percent of the national total. In 2012, Louisiana shrimpers landed 100.4 million pounds.
These numbers come despite shrimpers facing enormous problems during the past 10 years. Several hurricanes between 2005 and 2012 devastated the shrimping fleet. In 2010, just as the industry began to recover from the storms, a massive Gulf oil spill shut down fishing in many areas. Some areas remain off limits. In addition, competition from foreign imports, rising fuel prices and federal regulations makes life tough for shrimpers. Many shrimpers, some following traditions going back several generations, called it quits in recent years.
“My grandfather started shrimping in a sailing schooner before he had an engine on his boat,” says Clint Guidry of Lafitte, president and CEO of the 600-member Louisiana Shrimping Association. “My dad was a shrimper all his life. I did it on and off for all of my 65 years. From 2003 to 2009, Louisiana lost 75 percent of its offshore shrimping fleet and 40 percent of the inshore fleet. We’ve been through a lot in the past 10 years, but we’re still here.”
The good news is, with fewer boats working coastal waters, shrimpers earn more for their catches now. In addition, worldwide production dropped recently because shrimp raised in ponds overseas started dying mysteriously from something called Early Mortality Syndrome. With demand for shrimp high and fewer imports reaching American ports, remaining Louisiana shrimpers can better support their families.
“Early Mortality Syndrome only affects pond-raised shrimp, not wild shrimp,” explains David Chauvin, who owns David Chauvin’s Seafood Company and Bluewater Shrimp Company in Dulac. “It does not affect humans at all. Since EMS caused a global shortage of shrimp, prices rose. That’s actually good for people making a living off wild shrimp.”
Unlike in other states where most shrimpers work for large seafood corporations, Louisiana shrimpers typically own and operate their own boats. About 3,000 of the 5,500 Louisiana shrimpers run smaller boats to fish bays and estuaries between the Sabine and Pearl rivers. Larger boats head offshore.
“Louisiana has one of the biggest inshore fleets of any state,” Guidry says. “Most Louisiana shrimp boats are independently owned and operated by families going back many generations. People can catch shrimp in all Louisiana coastal waters, but historically, Barataria Bay and the Terrebonne Basin are some of the best places for shrimp. The Mississippi Basin, from Pearl River to the mouth of the Mississippi River also produces a lot of shrimp.”
These small, independent fishermen keep up with shrimp movements so they can catch enough crustaceans to feed their families and pay their bills. Captains running smaller inshore boats, usually with one deckhand or family member helping, frequently leave the dock around 5 p.m. during the season. Since everything eats the “bread of the sea,” shrimp frequently hide during the day and move at night. Shrimpers return to the dock around sunrise, hopefully with several hundred pounds of succulent crustaceans to sell.
Larger boats may stay out several weeks, depending upon how long it takes to fill their holds with shrimp or how much fuel and supplies they can carry. A big offshore boat might carry a captain and four to five deck hands. Some boats ice their catch and some boats carry their own refrigeration systems that allow them to stay at sea as long as their fuel and supplies last.
Both boat types use trawls to net their shrimp. Larger boats may deploy two nets off booms hanging over the sides and pull one or two nets directly behind the boat. Large wooden or aluminum planning boards spread the nets open as the boat moves. In inshore waters, smaller boats often hang skimmer nets off the sides to fish shallow estuaries.
“Skimmer nets can fish in different water depths,” Chauvin explains. “Skimmers work best at night because shrimp are nocturnal animals. During the day, they hide from predators because just about everything eats a shrimp. Shrimp bury themselves in the mud or sand and come out at night when they are less likely to get eaten.”
Louisiana shrimpers mainly catch two species – brown and white shrimp. Both species live in the vast Louisiana estuaries and migrate out to the Gulf of Mexico to spawn.
When spawning, a single female shrimp may produce more than a million offspring.
“The two species have similar life cycles, but spawn at different times,” says Martin Bourgeois, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries marine biologist in Baton Rouge. “Brown shrimp spawning peaks in winter, whereas white shrimp spawning peaks in early summer.”
When a boat full of shrimp docks, the captain negotiates to sell the catch for the best price. Larger shrimp bring in more money per pound. With money in hand, the boat captain resupplies his vessel for the next trip out while the processor prepares the shrimp for human consumption and shipping to a distributor or directly to restaurants.
“We process about 10 million pounds per year,” Chauvin says. “Probably 60 to 70 percent of what we process is sold in Louisiana. The rest goes to other states. When people go to restaurants or grocery stores to buy shrimp, they should ask where the shrimp originated. I urge everyone to demand Louisiana shrimp.”
Catching shrimp remains hard, dirty work, but most shrimpers would never consider doing anything else. They rebuild after storms, fight escalating costs and overcome other obstacles to bring succulent crustaceans to seafood lovers everywhere – just like their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did.
Live shrimp go into the bait tank after a good trawl
Droopy Williams deploys his net to catch shrimp.